August Wilson’s King Hedley II Overstrains For Mythic Significance

King Hedley II, Theatre Royal Stratford East ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 16 months ago

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August Wilson’s King Hedley II Overstrains For Mythic Significance King Hedley II, Theatre Royal Stratford East 3
Photo: Richard Davenport

August Wilson’s American Century Cycle is an epic theatrical project of ten plays set in each decade of the 20th century, focusing on African-American experience in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. With a backdrop of the Reagan era of the eighties, King Hedley II is a powerful social-realist drama about disadvantaged people struggling to better themselves, which overstrains for mythic significance.

Photo: Richard Davenport

The titular character is trying to rebuild his life and start a family after being released from prison for killing someone who attacked him. He wants to open a video store, but in a harsh economic climate he can only find the money by resorting to crime. Meantime his widowed mother Ruby’s former boyfriend Elmore, a smooth-talking hustler, turns up while prophetic neighbour Stool Pigeon urges forgiveness, as past violence threatens future dreams.

Photo: Richard Davenport

King Hedley II has a strong scenario and well-drawn characters, but falls well short of Wilson’s best work because it lacks dramatic momentum. Overlong (with a three-hour-plus running time) and overwrought, its promising set-up is undermined by excessive use of extended monologues and too many references to past events and offstage characters.

Peter McKintosh’s effective design shows a graffitied, partly shuttered row of wooden houses with a backyard where Hedley vainly tries to make seeds grow in the dirt. Though it has moments of dramatic intensity involving toxic masculinity and guns, Nadia Fall’s production fails to overcome the static, verbose nature of the play, despite an excellent cast.

Photo: Richard Davenport

As the facially scarred and internally wounded Hedley, Aaron Pierre bristles with angry bitterness and misplaced machismo. Lenny Henry brings some much-needed humour as the nattily dressed but razor-sharp Elmore. Martina Laird shows former singer Ruby’s grace belies the tough instincts of a survivor. And Leo Wringer charismatically plays the choric figure of Stool Pigeon, convinced that “God got a plan”.

King Hedley II, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, E15 1BN.  Tickets £10-£41, until 15 June 2019.

Last Updated 24 May 2019